(Unedited) Podcast Transcript 403: At the Expense of Vehicular Capacity
This week on Talking Headways we’re joined by journalist Megan Kimble to talk about housing and highway fights in Texas. We chat about TXDOT’s political pressure, the organizations fighting back, and how throughput remains king.
Below is a full unedited transcript:
Jeff Wood (1m 22s):
Megan Kimble, welcome to the Talking Headways podcast.
Megan Kimble (1m 47s):
Thank you for having me.
Jeff Wood (1m 48s):
Well, thanks for being here. Before we get started, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Megan Kimble (1m 52s):
Yeah, so I’m a journalist. I live in Austin, Texas. I have lived here for five years. I cover housing and transportation currently as a full-time freelancer, but I spent several years at the Texas Observer, which is a nonprofit news magazine based here in Austin.
Jeff Wood (2m 6s):
How do you feel about Austin?
Megan Kimble (2m 7s):
How do I feel about it? I love it here. It has its problems, but it’s a great place to be a journalist because there’s lots to cover in Austin and lots to cover in Texas.
Jeff Wood (2m 16s):
Yeah, for sure. I went to school at UT and and grew up in Houston so I’m somewhat familiar with what’s going on. I’ve been paying attention for a long time and been frustrated from here in California sometimes to see what’s going on. When did urban issues become your focus? When is that something that you started paying more attention to?
Megan Kimble (2m 33s):
Yeah, so I started my career in journalism in Tucson, Arizona, which is where I went to graduate school. I have an MFA in creative writing and I started a local food magazine. So I was the editor of a magazine called Edible by Arizona and I covered, you know, the local food movement, local food and agriculture and food systems for seven years. I wrote a book about food and at some point kind of at toward the end of those seven years, I sort of was itching for something new to cover and new to learn about because that’s very much my MO as a journalist is I love to learn. And a friend of mine was the executive director of a fair housing nonprofit and so I just started talking to him about his work and it was the 50th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act at the time. And so I wrote a story about housing segregation, which spoiled alert is still happening.
Jeff Wood (3m 16s):
Yeah, unfortunately discrimination
Megan Kimble (3m 18s):
And housing market is still rampant in almost every city in America. And I wrote a story about it and just learned, you know, really sort of basic things about how where you live determines most of how you’re able to access opportunity. You know how you access food for one, but how you access jobs and education, childcare, the quality of your air you breathe, everything comes down to where you live. And that really just captivated me. And so I started learning about, you know, the history of racial segregation in the us, read a lot about it and then I moved to Austin, which is a booming housing market, very different than Tucson and there was so much happening here and not that many journalists covering housing in the city.
Megan Kimble (3m 58s):
And so I sort of just made up a beat for myself when I got hired at the Texas Observer. I was like, I’d like to cover housing knowing how vitally important it was to individual families but also as like a societal issue that I felt like wasn’t getting that much attention. So you know, I just was hired and I was able to just start covering housing. So that includes like landlord tenant issues. That’s mostly what I started writing about because Texas is a very landlord friendly state. So there were a lot of sort of egregious violations for tenants. But then that got me very quickly into zoning and sprawl and all the other ways that cities are designed and come together and that’s how I ended up with transportation because once you start writing about housing, housing is fundamentally a transportation story.
Megan Kimble (4m 39s):
You know, like why it matters where you live is because where you live sometimes allows you to access services and opportunity and sometimes it makes it very difficult.
Jeff Wood (4m 47s):
Well you’ve gone so far is to start writing a book about transportation highways, et cetera. So apparently you’ve gotten this far down the rabbit hole to go that direction, but what was the kind of the spark that got you to think about writing that book that’s coming out hopefully soon?
Megan Kimble (5m 1s):
Well, yeah, books take a long time so yeah, I’ll come back on the podcast when it comes out cause it’s kinda couple years. So I wrote a story for the Texas Observer in late 2019 about Austin’s effort to update its land development code. So Austin, at that point it was you know, eight years in to an effort to revise its zoning code. Most of the city is zoned for single family housing. The city was trying to allow, you know, sort of more missing middle housing, more kinds of housing all throughout the city, more affordable development. It was this very contentious fight. It sort of fell apart briefly the year before. It was a very high emotion fight and I wrote a story about it, it was sort of on the verge of passing in the spring of 2020.
Megan Kimble (5m 43s):
I wrote that when it was like one vote away from passing, it did not pass. I will let listeners know, spoiler alert a lawsuit stopped it. Anyhow though, I wrote this story about Austin zoning code and like two months later the Texas Department of Transportation voted to allocate nearly 5 billion to expand I 35 through Austin. And no one I thought at that time had really made the connection between the booming growth of Austin suburbs driven by housing affordability, that it’s absolutely even in early 2020 unaffordable to live in central Austin. And so most working class people, middle class people were moving north on I 35 to suburbs like Round Rock and Ville South to Kyle and bda.
Megan Kimble (6m 25s):
And those were precisely the endpoints of this highway expansion that tech Dots had was urgently necessary to fix congestion in the Austin metro area. And so I knew that those suburbs were booming because of housing reasons. So then the reason textile, I mean it’s a very rational response from textile let us expand this highway to accommodate this growth of all these people that are coming into the city. And yet I felt like no one was talking about why does this highway need to be expanded And it’s a housing story, it’s sprawl, it’s we have not allowed enough people to live in the city of Austin or given them options besides driving to get the places they need to go. And so I started writing my I 35 and trying to make to really write about housing transportation as the same story and that’s what got me into text dot.
Megan Kimble (7m 6s):
And once I started writing about text dot the Texas department transportation, it’s this like never ending well of insanity frankly. Like there’s so many unquestioned assumptions that go into how we plan highways in the state of Texas, how we accommodate car travel above all other priorities and values. And so as a journalist I felt like this very rich area that again, not very many people were covering, a lot of people were writing about highway fights in Houston. There was this very contentious one. There are great reporters in Houston writing about that highway fight. There’s a one in Dallas, great reporters writing about that. I had been covering I 35 in Austin but I felt like no one had really done a zoom back look at tech, the Texas Department of Transportation as a state agency funded with our tax dollars.
Megan Kimble (7m 49s):
And so that’s what really got me into sort of the larger story of highways in Texas and indeed the interstate highway system.
Jeff Wood (7m 56s):
It’s interesting because those suburbs that you mentioned have always been kind of an escape valve for Austin residents who couldn’t afford to live in Austin anymore and and when I moved there in 1998 it was a much different place than it is today. But that sprawl was continuing and the expansion, you know 180 3 and all those other roads have been kind of going at a, at a large clip. But Austin kind of never really changed its thinking about land development and when the code next process came up, which is the initial idea of redoing the code from the Austin Tomorrow plan, which was a long time ago, 72 I think it was the time. But like you know, a lot of those suburbs were just kind of growing unconstrained as Austin stayed the same. And so I feel like that’s the connection that you’re making that’s really important.
Jeff Wood (8m 36s):
But now the escape valve has kind of shut itself off because there’s an article in the Wall Street Journal the other day about how just kind of there’s no land anymore for this allowance of these sunbelt cities to grow. And so I think there’s a connection there as well.
Megan Kimble (8m 47s):
Yeah, I mean there’s no land and we are in a climate emergency and so exactly you know there is an enormous cost to all of these commutes and that one of the costs there are many, one is financial but another is the greenhouse gas emissions that are growing and growing and growing. I mean one of my light bulb moments was the New York Times I think in 2017 or 2018 did an analysis of per capita greenhouse gas emissions from driving and it found that in most American cities per capita emissions were growing. So in Dallas Fort Worth they’re growing by like 27%. I think in Austin it was something like 12 or 14% but per person greenhouse gas emissions are growing and it’s because we’re driving more miles. To me there was also this like urgency to tackle that way of development and to really make this a climate story.
Jeff Wood (9m 31s):
Well you mentioned in in one of your stories, I can’t remember if it’s one of the Text Tribune stories or if it’s the observer story, but Texas has, I think the number was 0.48% of global emissions from transportation, which is, you know, they only have what 0.36% of the population. It’s a large number. It seems small because it’s a small percentage, but given you were thinking globally that’s a huge, huge number in terms of the emissions that are being caused by transportation in Texas.
Megan Kimble (9m 54s):
Yeah, I remember vividly when I found out that stat like I think one of the things is like not very many people read tech dots technical reports. And so I was given that time and space to read them and I found this graphic, you know on buried on page 30 or whatever it was that showed, you know, total worldwide emissions Texas emissions on road emissions in Texas and it’s indeed 0.48% And I actually found that to be astoundingly high, like when you think about climate changing global warming, we have to reduce emissions. It feels like this enormous problem. You know we have these oil and gas industry, we have you know like the oil that’s being pumped in the Middle East and yet here we are in Texas and we could what if we have to that like that is actually an enormous contribution to all of the global targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Megan Kimble (10m 43s):
And so that to me was like also a huge like fire me up. This is an important topic.
Jeff Wood (10m 48s):
I wanna talk a little bit about state leaders and people who are in positions of power. How do they feel about transportation in the state? Like what do state lawmakers and and people maybe at Tech dot that run tech stop, how do they feel about transportation?
Megan Kimble (11m 1s):
Yeah, so when I started reporting the story I wrote for the Texas Observer, it was co-published by the nation, it came out last summer. One of the first things I learned was text.is often villainized in a lot of the coverage of people who oppose highways but in fact text.is just responding to the mandate given to them by the Texas legislature and the Texas governor. And so it’s actually not that important what people at Tech dot think they’re doing what they’re told to do by our state government, which is appropriate. You know we elect our state government but there is this like very long running and persistent belief specifically in their Republican party in Texas that economic development means car travel. So without seamless car travel, without vehicle throughput our economy will suffer.
Megan Kimble (11m 42s):
In fact, Governor Abbott has said effectively that the number one thing we can do to keep Texas is the number one, you know, growing economy in the US is to fix congestion and to allow seamless car travel and that that is pervasive and essentially unquestioned in terms of that being the highest value and the highest purpose of our transportation system is to move cards. And so I think that explains a lot is if that is your highest value, I mean there are lots of competing values here, but if that is your highest value, of course you have the transportation system that we have in Texas which is exclusively almost car travel.
Jeff Wood (12m 17s):
Well it’s, it’s interesting, I mean did you ever expect that the major political party platform would say that road diets were anti-free? Those types of things? I mean I, I didn’t expect anything like that but apparently that’s, that’s where they’re going.
Megan Kimble (12m 29s):
Yeah I, once I read that the GeoP platform that came out I guess earlier this year, that was not surprising to me after having spoken with lots of people in the state legislature that those would be analogous freedom and car travel. But indeed in Texas they are,
Jeff Wood (12m 43s):
You were at the Texas Tribune Festival, there’s lots of misinformation I felt like that was coming out of the panel with Brandon Formby who is a great reporter for the Texas Tribune for a long time with before the Dallas Morning news. And you know he’s done a lot of stuff on IH 3 45 and those types of things. But I found that some of the panelists were kind of saying things that I thought were kind of crazy like Senator Nichols saying that not knowing that roads are subsidized just as much as transit and you know Brian Barth from Text dot basically saying that throughput is more important than humans safety. So I’m wondering kind of how you felt when you were watching this pan out on the stage.
Megan Kimble (13m 16s):
Yeah, so the panel was with Senator Nichols who’s the chair of the Senate Transportation Committee and Representative Canals who’s the Democrat chair of the House Transportation committee and then a high up at Tech dot. I mean I’m not surprised when they say those things cause I’ve heard them so many times now from tech dot and from elected officials. I think it’s not just in Texas, it’s throughout the US but it is particularly egregious in Texas. This notion that highways are free in transit is subsidized, transit is expensive and anyone listening to the show knows that highways are not free. They are extremely expensive, they are heavily subsidized by us, the taxpayers. I actually went, there was a hearing last session so whatever year that was 2021 to allow some of the state highway fund to be used on transit and there was a huge opposition to this proposed constitutional amendment because the Texas state constitution requires that 97% of funding of transportation funding is spent on roads.
Megan Kimble (14m 9s):
So there was a amendment to try to change that. There was public testimony before this when the committee was considering this bill and this this person for the Texans for toll-free highways came up to testify against the measure and he said do not take my gas tax dollars for the bus nor the bike paths. Nor for sidewalks the local municipalities can pay for their own. To me it smacks at a socialistic attempt to get me out of my vehicle.
Jeff Wood (14m 31s):
What’s that guy’s name again? I I
Megan Kimble (14m 33s):
Jeff Wood (14m 34s):
I remember the name from back in the day. He’s been around forever. Yeah, advocating, I think it was against toll roads to start with but
Megan Kimble (14m 40s):
Yeah so there’s this notion that public transit is for socialists and highways are for capitalists and that just pervades the state’s politics and it is totally false. They are both subsidized highways are subsidized at greater amounts than public transit. But it’s very hard to, once that idea has taken hold to really dispute it because like so many political ideas, many aren’t actually based in reality.
Jeff Wood (15m 4s):
It’s interesting to mention the political push and the ability of tech stocks to take that mandate as it were and put it into practice. But behind all that seems to be even more interesting connections. So in one of the stories you talked about the association for General Contractors of Texas and how much power they willed and I thought that that was an interesting kind of part of it as well in terms of how much the people who are making laws and regulations and rules are taken in by the donations from many of these groups that are building roads and building transportation. And it’s this kind of old canard of the road lobby as it were
Megan Kimble (15m 36s):
Indeed. And they are still very powerful. The associate general contractors of Texas gives hundreds of thousands of dollars to Texas Republicans including Governor Abbott including Senator Nichols who chairs the Senate Transportation Commission. And so they certainly have a huge influence in the state. And you know, my first question when I started reporting this I’m like well they’re contractors, they could build transit like that also we need contractors, we need people to build light rail and all of the other infrastructure that is not car infrastructure. But there is still, I think it really all comes back to this notion that car travel equals prosperity, car travel equals economic development which you know has its origins in the 1950s and sixties but I think has been fairly well disputed since then.
Megan Kimble (16m 19s):
But there is still like this orthodoxy that doesn’t allow that to be challenged.
Jeff Wood (16m 23s):
There’s also an 85 billion climate busting highway plan that was just pushed through. You know, that’s a lot of money to spend on highways specifically. I’m wondering what’s come of that and and how much of that has been part of the discussion of the future of Texas transportation?
Megan Kimble (16m 39s):
Yeah, I mean the sort of fundamental premise of the book that I’m working on, which is called City limits and is forthcoming from Crown Publishing is that the state of Texas has allocated $45 billion over the next 10 years. So that’s part of that 85 billion to what this program that Governor Abbott started called Texas Clear Lanes. And so he ran for office in 2014 promising to fix congestion of Texas cities. And indeed when he got into office he allocated an enormous amount of money to that endeavor. It’s called Texas Clear Lanes again 45 billion in essentially five Texas metros to fix traffic when decades of evidence shows that more lanes do not fix traffic.
Megan Kimble (17m 19s):
And so that’s like 45 billion. Think about how much public transit we could build in the state of Texas, think about how much affordable housing we could build in the state of Texas. And so that number to me is somewhat mind-boggling. And this has been my persistent question now for two years is like we know more lanes does not fix B urban congestion. Why are we spending 45 billion attempting to fix urban congestion by adding lanes? And when I said earlier that you know there’s a lot of insanity at textile, that’s literally what I mean. Like it’s the the definition of trying the same thing over and over and over and expecting a different result. And I have not received a satisfactory answer. I mean I think the kind of ethos of like I said, car travels prosperity is the answer.
Megan Kimble (18m 0s):
You mentioned Brian Bart at the Texas Jbe Festival. You know he commented on the San Antonio road what was gonna be a road diet. I feel like this example illustrates Texas transportation policy. So several years ago text dot decided to start turning over state highways to cities cuz many of the these state highways arterials go through cities but they look just like city street. So in Austin, South Lamar is a, is actually a state highway and so there’s one of these in San Antonio, I think it’s a six lane road. So textile was like hey we’re gonna give this back over to you San Antonio. And San Antonio was like great, we wanna narrow it and increase bike infrastructure. They put that to the voters, they raised a millions of dollars through a bond for over four years they’ve been planning to narrow it and increased Spike EOR in access.
Megan Kimble (18m 45s):
And then it seemed out of the blue earlier this year that was like actually no we’re gonna take that back and you can’t have it San Antonio because it is impermissible to reduce car capacity in state. And I suspect that goes all the way to Abbott. I think Abbott made a phone call and said that’s unacceptable. We cannot reduce car capacity. Which begs the question, does not Abbott not have better things to do with his time And two like this, the voters of San Antonio approved that plan and textile is saying no you are not allowed to do this anymore. And so to me I think that’s like a very alarming development that you know, there have been these efforts which I’m writing about in Dallas to tear down a short interstate highway I 3 45.
Megan Kimble (19m 32s):
Like that will not happen under the current leadership that will not even allow two lanes to be reduced on like effectively a city street and what the, what you references on Friday, Brian Barth who’s like the director of operations, I forget his title, but he’s a high up at textile, you know the moderator asked him, hey what happened in San Antonio? And he was like, you know, we understand that we, I could redo the quote, you know, we understand that we need more pedestrian and bike facilities particularly in terms of safety just not at the expense of vehicular capacity. Which I think is a really damning statement.
Jeff Wood (20m 5s):
Yeah I felt the same way. I saw your tweet about it and I, my eyes popped outta my head cause I know that that’s how they think. But them saying it blatantly saying it is another level to me specifically from textile officials because they kind of skirt around it ob you know a lot of times and and officials in different states even like you know in ODOT Oregon which is working you know on the rose quarter there’s a freeway fight going on there too and that they kind of skirt around the the issues to a certain extent too even though we know what they’re trying to get at. But Brian Bart saying blatantly was a little bit eyeopening and eye popping but I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised lately. Well let’s go to Austin from San Antonio. It’s interesting that you know, they want to expand I 35 even further. But first off you in in your Texas observer piece, you discussed kind of the modeling and the thinking of expanding because of this housing push on the outskirts that we mentioned earlier.
Jeff Wood (20m 53s):
And you know, thinking about modeling and thinking about the, how the zoning codes work in a lot of these cities where if you put a housing development in a place, it’s not likely to change, right? It’s not likely to go from 400 residents to 2000 residents because the housings is already there. They’re likely not to get to redevelopment into condos. So it’s interesting that the models seem to continue to spike up the numbers of these transit analysis zones or zip codes or whatever they use for their geographic measurement and then so that tells them to build freeways and highways and roads and all that stuff. So I’m wondering how much like impact all of these intricate pieces. So there’s the policy, there’s the politics, there’s the kind of the technical aspect of this modeling, how much of all these intricate pieces kind of lead to the lead to the highway?
Jeff Wood (21m 36s):
Is, is is the end answer, you know, how much does this modeling kind of take in all of these inputs and give them some sort of a way to sell the highway has the answer?
Megan Kimble (21m 48s):
Yeah, that’s a great question. I mean I don’t know enough about modeling except that I have interviewed enough very smart people to know that I think the model will spit out whatever you want it to spit out, right? Like you
Jeff Wood (22m 0s):
Can on black boxes
Megan Kimble (22m 1s):
You can tweak a model to get any kind of outcome that you want to get. And so I think I use that example in this story about this traffic analysis zone of like a subdivision that has been fully built out with single family homes and that the traffic model shows that it will, I don’t know, I can’t remember what it was like triple in population when you, I went and drove around and I was like yeah there’s no more space for people here. And that’s just a very small example of the sort of like unquestioned assumptions that go into these models and I think the models are so technical and so the response is often, well you don’t understand the models layperson who’s come to a public meeting, public official who has 18 other things that they need to do to run a city.
Megan Kimble (22m 43s):
They don’t question the models because they are so technical, right? And I think if you spend 30 minutes or even a day digging into the model, you see how sort of tenuous their assumptions are the assumptions of the data that goes into these models. Like a great example is there was this stat that was cited all over the place several years ago and they were trying to expand I 35 of well travel times between, I forget what it was like Kyle and round knock are increased to three hours. We have to expand the highway and no rational person is going to take three hours to make that trip. They will change their life, they will move, they will get a different job, they will do something different. They just will not sit on a 20 mile stretch of highway for three hours.
Megan Kimble (23m 24s):
No one, no rational consumer is gonna do that.
Jeff Wood (23m 27s):
They’ll take SH one 30. Yeah.
Megan Kimble (23m 29s):
And so there is just this like sort of, and that’s just one example of so many of like these unquestioned assumptions that go into these models And I find it like I think part of my job as a journalist is to debunk those is to be like actually if you lay person think that doesn’t make sense then it probably doesn’t make sense. There is this sort of like the expertise of the engineer cannot be challenged. I just read confessions of a recovery engineer so I’m sort of on that high horse right now. Check mark talking about the engineering profession as this like you know these gods who have all of the answers because they have math and they have technical capacity and I think so much of transportation decisions get made that way because most people don’t have time to look at the travel demand models and question the inputs that are going to and the value assumptions that are made saying this is more important than that.
Jeff Wood (24m 17s):
That leads to the next idea that I, I was was thinking about in terms of your reporting as well is that you wrote a story for Grist as well that talked about kind of how text dot has been segmenting parts of roads for a long time in order to game the system on nepa, which is the basically the environmental rules for federal law. And as you mentioned they said that in their model three hours to get from north to South Austin, but when they do these they segment them out so they don’t have to add them into three segments instead of one whole segment. So they don’t have to tell you the whole impact of that three hours or whatever it is they think are going to be in the end. And I’m curious how that was found out that they were kind of skirting the system.
Megan Kimble (24m 55s):
Yeah, so largely that was done by advocates. I personally, well everyone who pays attention to I 35 got in their inbox so I signed up for like text docs automatic notifications and so they sent ’em out whenever there’s like a public hearing or they issue an environmental assessment or an environmental report and a few days before Christmas they issued fonzi finding of no significant impact for the north and south segments of I 35 and it being Christmas I was like hmm odd, let me come back to that. And a few weeks later I finally read the finding of no significant impact for I 35 south and north. And it just seemed again as a sort of lay person, it seemed wrong that these segments would be found to have no significant impact.
Megan Kimble (25m 38s):
You know, they will be taking several dozen acres of new right away, they go over streams and creeks, they will induce demand by adding lanes. So like you can, I think there’s a legitimate argument to be made that like there will be an impact but it is worth it. Like that’s certainly the point of an environmental assessment is like hey we are gonna have this impact, we’re gonna attempt to mitigate it in this way and it is worth it for these benefits. But just to say that it has no impact feels a little disingenuous. And so I had kind of had that in the back of my brain and then an advocate, this person with this group called stop tech dot I 45 in Houston had the exact same thought and started looking into tech dots use of fonzi.
Megan Kimble (26m 18s):
And so his question was like well this seems kind of off, are they doing this a lot? Are they doing this on lots of projects that actually do have measurable environmental impacts? And what he found is indeed yes they use Ponzi at a really amazing rate. Textile is building a lot of projects and most of those projects received Ponzi. So what this activist Michael Merz found when he looked into text that’s use of ponies, which is all public information, it’s all on text that’s website is that between 2015 and twenty twenty two a hundred and thirty text out projects were found to have no significant impact. Will only six received full environmental reviews and cumulative the those 130 projects consumed nearly or will consume nearly 12,000 acres of land add more than 3000 new lane miles and displaced 477 homes.
Megan Kimble (27m 4s):
So I think cumulatively those highway projects clearly have an impact and one way that they are sort of obscuring that impact is by segmenting the project. And so Michael was doing this analysis, you know I said oh hey this is really interesting, I wanna write a story about it. And so I was talking to him and right around the same time this activist group in Austin called Rethink 35 decided to file a lawsuit alleging precisely that that techo had illegally segmented the I 35 project to obscure the environmental impacts. And so that is currently, you know, waiting a court date.
Jeff Wood (27m 36s):
It’s interesting, I mean a court result I guess wouldn’t necessarily mean that techo has to like, you know, drop the highway project as you mentioned. It just means that they’d have to spell out that it actually does have an impact. Which I think if you get it in there, you know, in writing I think that’s really important. Even if you don’t stop them this time, you might be able to kind of add on to the opposition over time in order to kind of get them to stop doing this ridiculousness. But it’s not necessarily going to stop this highway unfortunately. I mean maybe it will but that’s in wildest hopes but at the same time it you know, had to be kind of realistic in some way too.
Megan Kimble (28m 10s):
Yeah, I think it is very unlikely to stop it. I mean NEPA is a procedural law so the only recourse, the only thing that a court could rule is say is to say text out. You need to go back and do an in full environmental impact statement for the entire I 35 project. And I think why that’s important is that you know, the reason text dot issues these fonzi is that is it takes a lot of time and effort and manpower and slows down projects to do these environmental assessments and environmental impact statements. So that’s like to some extent sort of understandable like we’re paying as taxpayers, like those projects become more and more expensive the longer they study them. But I think why it’s important that they would do an environmental impact statement is that you are required to say how you’ll mitigate damage.
Megan Kimble (28m 51s):
And so you have to say in the document, there are the impacts and here’s how we’re gonna mitigate them. Like definitely a separate question and another story down the line it’s like are those mitigation measures sufficient? But at the very least they have to say what they’re gonna do.
Jeff Wood (29m 3s):
Yeah, it seems like there’s a lot of groups fighting highways in Texas. I know that they’ve all kind of been contacting each other and then there’s even a national kind of movement to fighting highways in the United States. And even in the infrastructure bill there was money for kind of reconnecting neighborhoods that were divided by highways. It it what used to be I think 20 billion but then it got knocked down to much less number. But what is it about Texas right now that is fomenting this, this opposition?
Megan Kimble (29m 28s):
Yeah, it’s a great question. I don’t actually know, I mean a lot of my book though is tracing the rise of this opposition. Like when I started reporting on text.in like early 2020, it was still largely fragmented. Like I said, the coverage was fragmented but also the opposition was that, you know, people in Houston were finding Houston Highways, people in Austin were trying to work with text.to make Austin highways better. People in Dallas were doing their thing there but there wasn’t any real, I think, activist effort [email protected] the unifying agency behind all these projects. And that has drastically changed in two and a half years. I don’t know why, honestly like I couldn’t really guess what prompted that. I don’t know why actually. Like I think as a journalist it’s, it’s sort of very interesting for me to track if and how cooperation between different cities will like this unified opposition will change how tech dot does business.
Megan Kimble (30m 17s):
I’m very curious to see how this goes but you know I go to the Texas Transportation Commission meetings and there are regularly normal people that are testifying against highway projects and I don’t think that was true three years ago. So I think there’s a larger awareness across the country of how, I mean the same things that got me interested in covering this as a journalist are getting normal people interested, which is to say like this doesn’t work, why are we doing it? It’s like a very basic question that I think has not been answered sufficiently by most state dots.
Jeff Wood (30m 48s):
Yeah, it’s that 85 billion question again it’s, it’s so much money and like what is it actually bringing people, you know we had Patrick Kennedy on a number of years ago to talk about I 35 in the removal there and they’ve done so much extensive work and research and deep dive into why it would be beneficial to remove that highway and yet text dots still they’re okay maybe because of that pressure, you know, putting it into a ditch but they still won’t think about getting rid of it. And I think that that’s interesting in itself and you kind of mentioned it earlier when talking about you know, the governor’s stance on things and why it might not ever happen under this specific administration but it just seems, you know, they, they put forth the work, it’s been decades they’ve been getting support, they’ve been building and they still can’t get the, you know, outcome that they are looking for.
Jeff Wood (31m 32s):
So that’s kind of frustrating in itself I feel like.
Megan Kimble (31m 35s):
Yeah, I mean I’ve mostly actually learned this talking to Patrick Kennedy, I think the outcome there is totally predictable when you remember that text dot and the state legislature values car throughput above any other metric. And so to me it’s like well of course they’re not gonna tear that highway down when all of your models say it’s gonna increase travel times by 40% and if travel times are your number one north star, then of course you wouldn’t remove that highway. You know, I think Patrick has done a very effective job of questioning the travel time narrative of like, you know, if induced demand is is a real phenomenon which has been documented over and over for half a century, so is reduced demand.
Megan Kimble (32m 16s):
So you know like the idea that if you reduce car capacity people will take fewer car trips which has been born out by evidence. So I think he’s done a really good effective job of challenging the notion that your commute will become catastrophic. But I think until the state stops prioritizing car travel, we will continue to have the same outcomes. Text out will not reduce car capacity on San Antonio to in San Antonio to build, you know, bike lanes. They will not tear down a little interstate highway to develop land. I mean there’s so much sort of like other values including developable land, affordable housing creation, job creation. The tech side is simply not measuring. And so that goes back to the models. It’s like we’re not measuring those benefits and therefore they are not reflected in our outcomes.
Megan Kimble (33m 0s):
And so until we start to measure them perhaps then they will be reflected on the outcomes.
Jeff Wood (33m 6s):
You’ve also been going through the highway deeds for land sold to text.in Deep M which is that area. And one of the interesting things I think that you and Patrick had talked about was how that was one of the most expensive highway expansions in history of the United States at the time. I’m wondering though, you know, not to give away too much of your book cause I think it’s probably gonna be part of it, but what was going through your mind as you sifted through some of this history?
Megan Kimble (33m 28s):
That’s a great question. I think the reason I started looking into highway deeds, these original rightaway purchases that text dot made in the 1950s and sixties was to try to get a sense of what was lost and specifically the value that was taken from normal people, largely black and Hispanic people, to try to, you know, create some kind of quantifiable measurement of that. You know, there’s so much conversation particularly with the reconnecting communities program and the Biden administration saying, you know, we have to repair the harms of these highways that divided communities. But I feel a little occasionally a little bit cynical about that because in some instances the people who live there are not the people who were harmed. So in Austin I 35 went right along East Avenue, which was the segregating line in the city to the east of East Avenue was mostly black and Hispanic neighborhoods.
Megan Kimble (34m 16s):
And so that highway certainly negatively impacted those people. But because East Austin has so rapidly gentrified over the last 10 or 15 years, those people do not live adjacent to the highway anymore. They will not be, they will not be served by building even if we tot down, which is what we think is advocating for. Like they actually will not benefit from that. And so I think it’s important if you’re going to say these we’re removing a highway repairs past harms, like to whom like I think answering that question is really important and I have not yet answered it, I’m still working on that. But I think that endeavor is really important.
Jeff Wood (34m 49s):
It’s interesting cuz we, we also had Andre Perion who is at the Brookings Institute and he wrote a book about valuing black lives black property as well. And so, you know, he’s been quantifying how much has been lost over time and and how that compounds, you know, if you lose the value of a home in an earlier generation it compounds how much impact that has on generations later. And so I feel like that’s kind of in the same vein as what you’re talking about is like if this freeway takes away the home of somebody, they moved somewhere else. They went into, not into the ether but just kind of they dispersed like everybody else did into the rest of the city. And so, but their impact is greater cuz they lost their home or they were underpaid for their home or something along those lines. And so I feel like that there’s a great impact there that it will be interesting to see what you come up with.
Megan Kimble (35m 31s):
I mean there’s a generational wealth that was taken I think that’s important
Jeff Wood (35m 34s):
Key. Yeah. So lastly I just wanna talk about your piece in Texas Monthly. Who I, I’m, I still like cringe whenever I read Texas Monthly like the headline just because I know that Michael Levy actually opposed Light Rail in 2000 in Austin when I was there and it makes me grumpy even though he’s been gone for a long time from the magazine. But I’m not still mad about it or anything. What stands out to you the most about Austin’s Housing Crunch?
Megan Kimble (35m 57s):
How self-inflicted it is? I mean I’m new to Austin relatively speaking, you know, I’ve been covering zoning here for five years but Austin has been trying to update its land development code for 10 years and has failed. And largely that’s because supposedly progressive homeowners do not want their neighborhoods to change. And so they have very effectively weaponized the law to say no, we do not want more housing in our backyards. And that’s happening across the country. But I think what really galls me about Austin is that there, it’s couched in a somewhat progressive language
Jeff Wood (36m 28s):
I guess I feel the same way. And you know, watching from afar since, you know, 2005 or so, I felt like here in San Francisco specifically, we have problems that have been pervasive for a long time. Hike, housing costs, et cetera. You could see at the time when I moved here and, and the couple of years after that, I was telling people in Austin, I was like, you’re gonna become San Francisco. And they, they wouldn’t believe me and I, I’m like, you’re doing the exact same things that San Francisco did years ago by not upzoning and, and not allowing more housing to be built and all these things and for a long time they had that safety valve, the, you know, escape valve of Butta and Round Rock and Leander, et cetera. But as we mentioned earlier, as those close off, I feel like now Austin is getting kind of punished for their lack of movement on housing.
Jeff Wood (37m 12s):
And it’s interesting to see that it is kind of a self-inflicted wound. It is something that people’s been telling them for a while to people of Austin but nobody really, some people were listening but a lot of folks were against it overall. And I just find that fascinating that you can see that you’re the frog boiling in the pot, kinda like climate change even you could see what’s coming but you just can’t do anything about it.
Megan Kimble (37m 33s):
Yeah, I think what’s also tricky, what I learned really writing the story about this one zoning case in East Austin for Texas monthly is like on the very microcosm on the like small scale, it’s totally understandable I think why people oppose new development like case by case, by case by case. It’s like there’s a creek here, people wanna protect trees, there’s very much good intentions involved. This is like for different stories I’ve written, I’ve talked to Hispanic people who live in predominantly Hispanic neighborhoods that are changing and gentrifying and they do not want that to happen. And all of it is sort of very understandable. I think the problem is that when we give homeowners so much power over development in the city, what happens is those individual needs take precedence over the collective need.
Megan Kimble (38m 17s):
And the collective need is more housing in the city because what’s happening is like environmental concerns in the city are driving new development north and just like selling trees like scraping clean hill country, paving it over with concrete and that is so much more environmentally damaging than like putting an ADU in my, my backyard. And yet that’s what people are fighting because that’s what they can see. And so it’s, it’s very like understandable. I think my job as a journalist is to be like, let us zoom back. And so like one of my favorite tools is the US Geological Society put out land cover maps that show new development and cities between like 2001 and 2019. And so you can see where there’s been new impervious cover created in cities and it’s all sprawl, it’s all on the perimeter of cities.
Megan Kimble (39m 2s):
Like Houston has added something like 200 square miles of new development on its exterior. Austin has added like 71 square miles that used to be hill country that used to be trees and rocks and dirt and now they’re housing developments. And that is specifically because we have notated our land development code. And so I understand homeowners who cannot see that larger picture, but I feel like that’s very much my urgency and my why I’m interested in covering this as a journalist is to like make that connection between the trees that are being scraped clean far away from you, you can’t see it and the fight on your street to prevent more housing.
Jeff Wood (39m 39s):
Yeah, it really goes against kind of the nineties ethos in Austin of the Save Our Springs Alliance and the big long meetings that they had to, you know, kind of save the impervious cover over the Edwards aquifer. So it’s interesting to see how the ethos of that has kind of gone. I do wanna end on a positive note. I feel like a lot of the, the shows that I’ve been doing lately have been a lot of negative stuff, although there’s a few positive things, but just kind of like, oh the, the freeways are coming and the housing is a pain in the butt and it’s getting really expensive. What’s your positive note for the future of Austin or in Texas in general? I’m curious kind of if you have any feelings towards a bright future.
Megan Kimble (40m 12s):
It’s been a hard summer. I think my biggest hope is like I have been covering and reporting on a lot of young activists, so people who are 27 or 25 or 22 showing up to the Texas Transportation Commission and saying I want a better future. And that is so inspiring to me. Like, I don’t know if you covered the youth activist in Oregon, the Sunrise movement folks who are protesting outside of odot, like high schoolers fighting freeways is so inspiring to me cuz it’s like, it’s so obviously a climate issue and I think for so long, for most of my life it hasn’t been, you know, we just get around in our cars. That’s just how we get around.
Megan Kimble (40m 53s):
And I think to see this movement of younger people who are challenging that assumption is, you know, the only way, the only way out of this is like young people with this sort of moral clarity to say I want a better future.
Jeff Wood (41m 7s):
I like that. I appreciate that. In Dallas too, I feel like Patrick and those folks have kind of given over the mantles to some other folks locally as well who are, are interested in fighting for I 3 45, which I found really, you know, refreshing as well. Megan, where can folks find you if they wanna watch to make sure they can get a copy of your book when it comes out and maybe, you know, see some of your reporting?
Megan Kimble (41m 26s):
Yeah, you can visit my website, which is megan kimble.com and follow me on Twitter, which is my name, Megan Kimble, k i m b l e. That’s my
Jeff Wood (41m 35s):
Handle. Awesome. Well Megan, thanks for joining us. We really appreciate your time.
Megan Kimble (41m 38s):
Yeah, thank you.